Wednesday, January 23, 2008, 11:25 PM

Split Fourth Circuit Panel Rules Against Employer In ADA Case

Today in Wilson v. Phoenix Specialty Mfg. Co. the Fourth Circuit affirmed an ADA judgment against an employer. The district court, after a bench trial, found that the employer terminated plaintiff's employment because it regarded him as disabled by his Parkinson's disease, i.e., believed his Parkinson's disease was substantially more limiting than it actually was. The employer's defense was that a downtown turn in sales in its industry after 9/11 (it makes parts for manufacturing aircraft) necessitated a reduction in force, including plaintiff's position (supervisor in the shipping department). The employer contended that plaintiff's position was eliminated because he was unable to do efficiently some of the tasks required in the shipping department; made many errors; and failed to master the new computer system. The district court found the defense unsupported by the evidence. Judge Niemeyer wrote a lengthy dissent. Focusing on the district court's finding that plaintiff was not disabled, Judge Niemeyer emphasized that plaintiff prevailed on an alternative theory that, though he wasn't disabled, the employer regarded him as such. (The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis that the employer "regarded" the employee as having an "impairment that substantially limits one or more of [his] major life activities.") Judge Niemeyer argued that plaintiff failed to show that the employer was mistaken in its belief that he was suffering a substantial limitation of one or more major life activities. "There is simply no evidence from which to conclude that [the employer] had a misperception about [plaintiff's] impairments at the time it terminated his employment, nor did the district court find any," Judge Niemeyer emphasized.

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